Sara Barnes used to like sitting in the hollowed-out center of “The Senator,” a 3,500-year-old cypress tree in Longwood’s Big Tree Park, after the park closed.
She enjoyed the breeze that blew through the top of the 125-foot-tall tree and travelled down its core.
On a night in January 2012, while Barnes and a friend smoked meth inside “The Senator,” the breeze was a bit much, so they started a fire. The fire grew and what was then the fifth-oldest tree in the world burned from the inside out like a bellowing chimney.
Seminole County firefighters could only watch as the once tall and mighty bald cypress burned to a smoldering 20-foot stump.
Two years after being released from prison following a 30-month sentence for burning down “The Senator,” Barnes, 33, found herself back in Seminole County Jail Friday, where she faces a charge of trafficking meth.
According to the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, investigators found 22 grams of meth hidden in the washing machine of Barnes’s Altamonte Springs home. Another 16 grams were found in a plastic drawer in her bedroom.
Investigators said Barnes told them she doesn’t sell a lot of meth, but just enough to keep her habit going.
According to Seminole County Court Records, Barnes had been in and out of trouble after posting bond for her “Senator” arrest. She was arrested in August 2012 when authorities said they saw her smoking meth while driving.
She later reached a plea agreement stating she would complete five years of probation in lieu of a 30-month sentence. But she violated her probation twice, eventually having to serve her prison term, minus 10 months for time served.
Barnes is currently being held in Seminole County Jail in lieu of $25,000 bail. She has a court date set for Nov. 12.
Florida’s oldest tree
“The Senator’s" age was estimated at 3,500 years old in 1993. It was considered the oldest tree in Florida and the fifth-oldest in the world, according to the State Division of Forestry. It was also considered the largest bald cypress in the U.S. and the largest of any kind of tree east of the Mississippi.
“The Senator” was named for State Sen. Moses Overstreet, who owned the land around the tree and donated it to the county in 1927 for use as a park. In 1929, President Calvin Coolidge visited the Senator for the park’s dedication.
Even before receiving its name, “The Senator” was popular among locals. The Seminole Tribe of Florida used the tall cypress as a landmark, and in the 1800s sightseers paid for buggy rides through the swamp, then hopped a series of logs to make it to the tree.
When it burned down, “The Senator” was around 125 feet tall, but at one time stood around 165 feet. Its crown was damaged and size reduced by a 1926 hurricane.